Growing urban populations, increasing water consumption, and decreasing predictability of climate all point to an ever-increasing need to improve water-use efficiency and watershed management around the world. Moreover, providing clean water and restoring the nitrogen cycle, are two of the 14 National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges, that future engineers will need to act upon. Therefore, treating once-used water on-site to safe effluent-reuse standards—rather than using the water just once and flushing it back to an expensive, high-maintenance centralized treatment plant—has the potential to help reverse this trend by restoring the local water-nutrient cycle.
With these considerations, in the spring of 2016, a capstone project was designed to task students of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University to provide solutions to those Engineering Grand Challenges. The project involved the selection of an on-site wastewater reclamation and reuse technology, followed by the design, construction, operation, and testing of the selected technology.
A tidal flow wetland was chosen and it was tested in the laboratory of civil infrastructure at Northeastern University. The objectives of this pilot system were twofold. First, as a research tool, for undergraduate and graduate students; this system can be used to build data to show the reliability of tidal flow treatment as a decentralized wastewater treatment approach for residential wastewater, as well as optimize constituent removal by assessing the impacts of adjusting various treatment parameters (recycle ratio, treatment cycles per day, constituent concentrations, etc.). Secondly, as an education tool: the system can be used to teach undergraduate students about alternative wastewater treatment, fluid dynamics and hydraulics, material properties, and even Arduino and C++ programming. Also, as literature suggests that the major obstacles in the widespread application of water reuse projects are the public perception and the institutional barriers, addressing the stigma of water reuse trough education was deemed to be vital, together with the pilot, to demonstrate the feasibility of water reuse technologies. Therefore, as part of this objective, the project included a public education component, which main outcome was the creation of a website (northeastern.edu/waternotwaste).
The project was successfully completed during the spring of 2016, and handed to the Civil and Environmental Engineering department. The system has, since then, been used for the Young Scholar Program (YSP) over the summer of 2016 and is currently being used for an undergraduate research project funded by the Northeastern University Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors Award. The paper will discuss the implementation of this type of capstone projects and provide suggestions on how to integrate design projects, innovation, and research for undergraduate education which address the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges.
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